Sensory Processing

The sounds are typical of an elementary school. The chirp of sneakers echo from the glossy floor down the hall. Papers and other materials rustle between fingertips. A crescendo of excited voices fill the halls before fading away as students settle in for their next class period.

Just like that, a large group of students’ sensory needs can be satiated while transferring from one classroom to the next.

At South Fayette Elementary School in McDonald, Pa., a sensory hallway lines a first-floor stretch that gets plenty of traffic. Lines zig and zag along the floor and touching stations with things such as sandpaper and fake grass line patches of walls. Students take their turn, use verbal cues, practice body awareness and get their sensory fill, all while traveling from one classroom to the next.

The sensory hallway is essentially a path for students to follow, with rules and guidance along the way. It is an effective activity for plenty of students, but it’s not the only way to engage the senses.

South Fayette Township is one of many school districts that has emphasized providing sensory processing activities to all students, and it is seeing the benefits firsthand.

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing occurs when any of the senses (sight, sound, touch, movement, taste or smell) relay information through the nervous system. When that highway of information gets detoured, it results in a condition known as sensory processing disorder. SPD can manifest as impulses that are perceived as abnormal responses. For example, a student may feel the need to touch or squeeze specific items, or could shy away from feeling certain textures.

“Sensory processing is the ability to manage all of the sensory inputs we receive from our environment,” says Mary Grassi, Allegheny Intermediate Unit supervisor of occupational and physical therapy. “Individuals with sensory processing disorder feel these inputs much more intensely or less intensely than the typical person, and can become overwhelmed. Strategies designed to modify the environment can reduce the impact of these sensations and help the student stay calm and attentive in school.”

In order to meet the sensory needs of students, local schools have taken numerous approaches, such as sensory rooms, classroom materials and routines. Sensory rooms may contain:

• Swings

• Crash pads

• Therapy balls

• Weighted blankets

• Tactile panels

• Fiber optic lights

• Bubble lights

Classroom materials may include:

• Fluorescent light covers

• Fidgets

• Adapted seating, such as ball chairs

• Chair cushions

• Kick bands around legs of a chair

• Standing desks

• Bean bags

• Tents

Activities may include:

• Yoga

• Other movement-based activities

“No one strategy is more effective than another,” says Grassi. “Sensory needs differ for each student and are managed individually. The occupational therapy staff works collaboratively with teachers and teams within our schools to identify individual student needs and develop sensory interventions that best meet those needs.”

A stroll down sensory lane

At South Fayette, the sensory hall started with one small step. It initially was used for students during their occupational therapy sessions, but grew into something much larger. The other students were intrigued. Soon enough, they were joining in.

“It’s great for every kid, not just kids who have sensory needs and have difficulty with transitions,” says Christine Nypaver, AIU occupational therapist. “I feel in schools these days there’s not enough activity. I encourage all classrooms to take a detour down the pathway.”

Soon enough, the principal and administrators took note and another sensory hall was added to the upper level of the school for students in third through sixth grade. That hallway ups the ante slightly with hopscotch and other higher-level skill requirements.

There’s a good chance that nearly every student at the school has utilized one of the hallways.

The floor is lined with blue painter’s tape that can be found at any hardware or home goods store. The tactile wall features equally affordable and convenient items such as glitter paper, sandpaper and Easter grass. Nypaver estimated the entire project cost just $10.

A room of their own

Some students just need a little alone time. Sensory rooms provide a safe and soothing atmosphere in which the students can explore or simply be at peace.

At Mon Valley, one of three AIU schools for exceptional students, the sensory room provides respite at the children’s own pace. Based on an assessment, students are given a “sensory diet” of activities designed to meet their needs. Students can choose from a variety of activities in the room and are given an allotment of time, usually about 10-15 minutes, to explore.

The sensory room at Mon Valley is equipped with numerous items to satiate the sensory needs of its students in an otherworldly environment, including:

• A light projector that swirls calming green dots of light around the facility.

• A mermaid fabric bulletin board with “scales” that produce an iridescent glow when rubbed down and another shade when rubbed up.

• A vertical lamp filled with plastic fish and bubbling water.

• A stand-up bopping bag.

• Fiber optic light strands.

• A large bean bag that hugs the body and heightens proprioceptive awareness.

Mon Valley’s sensory room was updated for the 2018-19 school year. Other schools in the area continue to build their sensory programs with the support of AIU therapists.

Rising popularity

For proof of the growing presence of sensory processing areas in schools, take a look at North Hills School District. Over the summer, its middle school constructed a new sensory room for autistic support students as the district’s first class moves from elementary to middle school.

Plenty of thought, discussion and consultation went into the room.

AIU occupational therapist Melissa Davidson and North Hills COTA Jennifer Eslep collaborated with the district's special education department, middle school principal and autistic support teachers in order to develop initial plans and an appropriate equipment list for the versatile sensory room.

“This space will provide students with sensory processing needs an area in which to have these needs met in order to participate in their school day more effectively,” says Davidson. “While the room is being developed for and will primarily benefit seventh and eighth grade autistic support students, it will also benefit students throughout the middle school with sensory needs, including emotional support and learning support students as well as students in the general education population.”

The need for 
occupational therapists

From sensory halls to rooms or flexible seating in classrooms, times certainly are changing as learning spaces are infused with new materials and techniques. Students of all needs and backgrounds benefit from sensory stimulation throughout the school day in numerous ways. While the techniques are intriguing and capture the attention, it is the work of dedicated therapists who put it all in motion.

Occupational therapists are trained in the assessment and treatment of sensory processing disorders. The therapist evaluates a student, interprets the results of this evaluation and provides appropriate sensory strategies to support the student’s learning in school. Therapists are trained in the use of sensory materials and implementation of appropriate supports. It is important to have a good assessment of the student’s ability to process sensory information by a knowledgeable professional who determines the areas of need and designs specific strategies. Nypaver explains that a student’s needs can be inconsistent and change over time; however, a trained professional can provide assistance and modify strategies as students grow.

“Occupational therapists work with each student and the student’s team to develop and monitor appropriate school-based strategies that meet the student’s needs for successful participation in their educational environment,” she says.